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Nazario v. Professional Account Services, Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Fort Myers Division

February 13, 2018

ELIAJALYN NAZARIO, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated, Plaintiff,
v.
PROFESSIONAL ACCOUNT SERVICES, INC. and LEHIGH HMA, LLC, Defendants.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION [1]

          MAC R. McCOY, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff's Motion to Certify Class (Doc. 56), filed on July 19, 2017. Defendants Professional Account Services, Inc. (“PASI”) and Lehigh HMA, LLC d/b/a Lehigh Regional Medical Center (“Lehigh Regional”) filed an Opposition to Plaintiff's Motion for Class Certification (Doc. 60) on August 18, 2017. The matter was referred to the Undersigned for a Report and Recommendation and is now ripe for review. For the reasons discussed herein, the Undersigned respectfully recommends that Plaintiff's Motion to Certify Class (Doc. 56) be DENIED in its entirety.

         I. Background

         This action questions whether Defendants had the authority to file hospital liens for unpaid hospital charges. (See Doc. 37). Plaintiff alleges that Defendants created and filed hospital liens against Lehigh Regional's former patients' third-party liability or other insurance benefits to collect on outstanding debts owed for the hospital's services without authority to do so. (See id.). Plaintiff's Second Amended Complaint alleges that the hospital liens constitute an attempt to collect a debt in violation of the Florida Consumer Collection Practices Act, Fla. Stat. § 559.55 et seq. (“FCCPA”), and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1692 et seq. (“FDCPA”). (Doc. 37). Plaintiff's seven remaining claims are: Violation of the FCCPA as to Lehigh Regional (Count 1); Violation of the FCCPA as to PASI (Count 2); Violation of the FDCPA as to PASI (Count 3); injunctive relief under the FCCPA as to Lehigh Regional (Count 6); injunctive relief under the FCCPA as to PASI (Count 7); declaratory relief under the FCCPA as to Lehigh Regional (Count 8); and declaratory relief under the FCCPA as to PASI (Count 9). (Doc. 37; Doc. 49 at 12).

         In the Motion sub judice, Plaintiff seeks certification of a class of individuals who allegedly were subjected to the “unlawful and counterfeit liens” recorded against them. (Doc. 56 at 2). Specifically, Plaintiff seeks entry of an Order certifying a class defined as:

(i) All Florida citizens (ii) who were the subject of a counterfeit lien recordation by LEHIGH REGIONAL and/or PROFESSIONAL ACCOUNT SERVICES, INC. (iii) in an attempt to collect a debt incurred for medical bills (iv) from 2 years prior to the filing of the initial complaint, October 18, 2016, to the date of class certification.

(Id. at 2; see also Doc. 37 at ¶ 35).[2] In addition, Plaintiff requests that the Court appoint the law firm of Viles & Beckman, LLC as lead counsel for the class and that Plaintiff Eliajalyn Nazario be designated as class representative for the class. (Doc. 56 at 12). The Undersigned addresses the issues raised by Plaintiff's Motion below.

         II. Discussion

         The United States Supreme Court has noted that class actions are “an exception to the usual rule that litigation is conducted by and on behalf of the individual named parties only.” Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. 338, 348, (2011) (quotation and citation omitted). To justify a departure from that rule, a class representative must be a part of the class and possess the same interests and suffer the same injuries as the class members. Id.

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23 sets forth the requirements for class actions. Under the Rule, all putative classes “must meet each of the requirements specified in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(a), as well as at least one of the requirements set forth in Rule 23(b).” Calderone v. Scott, 838 F.3d 1101, 1104 (11th Cir. 2016) (citation omitted). “Rule 23(a) requires every putative class to satisfy the prerequisites of numerosity, commonality, typicality, and adequacy of representation.” Id.

         Additionally, Rule 23(b) specifies the types of class actions that may be maintained if Rule 23(a) is satisfied. Id. Here, Plaintiff moves pursuant to Rule 23(b)(2), which additionally requires that “the party opposing the class has acted or refused to act on grounds that apply generally to the class, so that final injunctive relief or corresponding declaratory relief is appropriate respecting the class as a whole.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(b)(2). The Undersigned addresses the requirements of Rule 23(a) and Rule 23(b) separately below.

         A. Fed. R. Civ. P 23(a)

         The requirements of Rule 23(a) ensure that named plaintiffs are appropriate representatives of the class they wish to litigate. Dukes, 564 U.S. at 349. “The Rule's four requirements - numerosity, commonality, typicality, and adequate representation - ‘effectively limit the class claims to those fairly encompassed by the named plaintiff's claims.'” Id. (citing Gen. Tel. Co. of Sw. v. Falcon, 457 U.S. 147, 156 (1982)). The question of whether to certify a class rests in the sound discretion of the district court. Rosario-Guerrro v. Orange Blossom Harvesting, 265 F.R.D. 619, 624 (M.D. Fla. 2010) (citing Babineau v. Fed. Exp. Corp., 576 F.3d 1183, 1189 (11th Cir. 2009)).

         Nevertheless, the party moving for class certification has the burden to establish all implicit and explicit requirements of Rule 23. Bussey v. Macon Cty. Greyhound Park, Inc., 562 Fed.Appx. 782, 787 (11th Cir. 2014); Valley Drug Co. v. Geneva Pharm., Inc., 350 F.3d 1181, 1187 (11th Cir. 2003). Indeed, Rule 23 does not establish a mere pleading standard. Dukes, 564 U.S. at 350. Instead, “[a] party seeking class certification must affirmatively demonstrate his compliance with the Rule-that is, he must be prepared to prove that there are in fact sufficiently numerous parties, common questions of law or fact, etc.” Id. at 351.

         Furthermore, the Supreme Court has recognized that “sometimes it may be necessary for the court to probe behind the pleadings before coming to rest on the certification question.” Id. at 350-51 (citing Falcon, 457 U.S. at 156)). “The class determination generally involves considerations that are enmeshed in the factual and legal issues comprising the plaintiff's cause of action.” Id. at 351 (citing Falcon, 457 U.S. at 157). Accordingly, the Court must conduct a “rigorous” analysis of the Rule 23(a) prerequisites that may overlap with the merits of a plaintiff's underlying claim. Id.

         The specific requirements of Rule 23(a) include:

(1) the class is so numerous that joinder of all members is impracticable;
(2) there are questions of law or fact common to the class;
(3) the claims or defenses of the representative parties are typical of the claims or defenses of the class; and
(4) the representative parties will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(a). These four prerequisites are “‘designed to limit class claims to those fairly encompassed by the named plaintiffs' individual claims.'” Valley Drug Co., 350 F.3d at 1188 (quoting Prado-Steiman ex rel. Prado v. Bush, 221 F.3d 1266, 1278 (11th Cir. 2000)). If the moving party fails to establish any one of these four factors, then the party is precluded from class certification. Id.

         The Undersigned addresses each of the requirements of Rule 23(a) in turn below in addition to the threshold questions of standing, the class definition, and ascertainability.

         1. Standing

         As a threshold matter, Plaintiff must have standing pursuant to Article III to raise each class claim. Busby v. JRHBW Realty, Inc., 513 F.3d 1314, 1321 (11th Cir. 2008). Defendants, however, did not challenge Plaintiff's standing. (See generally Doc. 60). Thus, the Court need not address this issue in detail here. Upon consideration, the Court finds no basis for rejecting Plaintiff's standing to bring her FCCPA and FDCPA claims.

         2. Class Definition and Ascertainability

         Another threshold consideration is whether Plaintiff has demonstrated that the proposed class is adequately defined and clearly ascertainable. Bussey, 562 Fed.Appx. at 787. “An identifiable class exists if its members can be ascertained by reference to objective criteria” and the objective criteria is administratively feasible. Id. (quotation omitted). “Administrative feasibility means that identifying class members is a manageable process that does not require much, if any, individual inquiry.” Id. (quotations omitted). A court should deny class certification when the class definition is “overly broad, amorphous, and vague, or where the number of individualized determinations required to determine class membership becomes too administratively difficult.” Kirts v. Green Bullion Fin. Servs., LLC, No. 10-20312-CIV, 2010 WL 3184382, at *6 (S.D. Fla. Aug. 3, 2010). After a plaintiff satisfies this threshold issue, then the district court conducts its rigorous analysis of the Rule 23 prerequisites. Bussey, 562 Fed.Appx. at 787 (citations omitted).

         Here, as stated above, Plaintiff seeks to certify a class defined as:

(i) All Florida citizens (ii) who were the subject of a counterfeit lien recordation by LEHIGH REGIONAL and/or PROFESSIONAL ACCOUNT SERVICES, INC. (iii) in an attempt to collect a debt incurred for medical bills (iv) from 2 years prior to the filing of the initial complaint, October 18, 2016, to the date of class certification.

(Doc. 56 at 2).

         Defendant does not challenge the adequacy of the class definition or its ascertainability. (See generally Doc. 60).

         Upon an independent review of the class definition, the Undersigned finds no basis on which to conclude that the current class definition is not administratively feasible. Instead, the Undersigned finds that identifying class members should be a manageable process that does not require much, if any, individual inquiry. See Id. Further, the Undersigned finds no basis on which to conclude that the class definition is overly broad, amorphous, or vague, or that the number of individualized determinations required to determine class membership is too administratively difficult. See Kirts, 2010 WL 3184382, at *6. Thus, the Undersigned finds that the class definition is adequately defined and clearly ascertainable. See Bussey, 562 Fed.Appx. at 787. The Undersigned now turns to a rigorous analysis of the Rule 23 prerequisites. See id.

         3. Rule 23(a)(1) Numerosity

         To certify a class, Rule 23(a) requires that the class be “so numerous that joinder of all members is impracticable.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(a)(1). The plaintiff bears the burden of making some showing, albeit a “generally low hurdle, ” of “affording the district court the means to make a supported factual finding that the class actually certified meets the numerosity requirement.” Vega v. T-Mobile USA, Inc., 564 F.3d 1256, 1267 (11th Cir. 2009); Schojan v. Papa Johns Int'l, Inc., 303 F.R.D. 659, 664 (M.D. Fla. 2014). Although the mere allegation of numerosity is insufficient, the plaintiff need not show a precise number of members for the putative class and, further, the rule imposes a “generally low hurdle.” Vega, 564 F.3d at 1267. In dicta, the Eleventh Circuit has held, “while there is no fixed numerosity rule, ...


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